“Savior of the Nations, Come” Today’s liturgy is centered around this hymn, appointed to be sung each year on this first Sunday of Advent. Both the organ prelude and offertory are settings of this famous tune. The text is ancient. Composed by Ambrose of Milan (who baptized St Augustine) before 397 AD, the hymn was so important in the medieval church that Martin Luther translated it to German in 1524. Even the tune is a modification of a medieval chant melody, VENI REDEMPTOR GENTIUM. Ambrose is careful to maintain an explicit Trinitarian theology throughout the hymn. The second stanza expounds on Christ’s divinity, “Not by human flesh and blood, By the Spirit of our God, Was the Word of God made flesh—Woman’s Offspring pure and fresh.” So, although he was born a human like us, he was without sin; ie., “pure and fresh.” This stanza seems to allude to John 1 in which Jesus is described as the “Word.” Further, the fourth stanza emphasizes further Christ’s estrangement of the world as we sing, “From the Father forth He came and returneth to the same, Captive leading death and hell—High the song of triumph swell!” This stanza captures the eternality of Christ; existed before His earthly birth and He existed after his death and resurrection. The final stanza is a doxology, affirming the unity of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All hymns from this time contain a final doxological stanza as a means to counter Arianism, a heresy which maintained that Christ was not truly divine and was merely another created being.
With its didacticism, this hymn is a good example of what constitutes the Lutheran chorale, that unique body of hymnody that developed during the Lutheran reformation. Chorales were sung in the vernacular (ie., German in this case), were sung by the congregation (as opposed to the clergy or choir) and were highly doctrinal. After all, the late medieval times were characterized by great superstitions but very little doctrinal understanding (are twenty-first century people much different?) The chorale texts, whether composed new or reconstructions from the chant repertoire, as this hymn is, were often narrative, and conveyed doctrine almost as a story. One can see that in the narrative account of this hymn—the first stanza prays for the “savior of the nations” to come, the second begins recounting that “not by human flesh and blood. . . was the Word of God made flesh,” the third mentions the “maid found with child,” whose birth begins “His heroic course.” Continuing, the fifth stanza alludes to Christ’s death, for “into hell His road went down, back then to His throne and crown,” which action redeems humanity from our sin, as exemplified in the next stanza which is now directed as a prayer to the Son, “By Your mighty pow’r make whole all our ills of flesh and soul.” We return then to the “manger” which shines in “glory through the night.” This highly-compact doctrinal outlay is by no means unique—consider a similar chorale, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come” (555) which tells even more completely the story of Christ’s life, this time in the context of a framework of law and gospel.
Sometimes, well-meaning church-folk defend jettisoning hymnody and chorales from the Divine Service, replacing them with little ditties which they contend are a “different style but the same substance.” Although there are some good modern hymns, many more lack the substance these early chorales do, which even a cursory reading will evidence. It is always good to give thanks for Ambrose, Augustine, Luther, and the great hymnody they left for us.